(Survival Manual/2. Social Issues/ Our Future, Part 1-4)
The Future according to Robert Crumb” Whole Earth Review,
A. The Energetic Foundations of Human History
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By David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept
Seethe book: Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change [Paperback], Amazon.com $9.40.
The broad processes of human history can be understood using an ecological framework that recognizes primary energy sources as the strongest factors determining the general structure of human economy, politics and culture. The transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life to that of settled agriculture made possible the expansion of human numbers, denser settlement patterns and surplus resources. Those surplus resources were the foundations for what we call civilization including the development of more advanced technologies, cities, social class structures, standing armies and written language. Archaeology records a series of civilizations that rose and fell as they depleted their bioregional resource base. Archaeology records a series of civilizations that rose and fell as they depleted their bioregional resource base. Lower density simple agrarian and hunter-gatherer cultures took over the territory of collapsed civilizations and allowed the resources of forests, soils and water to regenerate. That in turn, gave rise to new cycles of growth in cultural complexity.
In the European renaissance, the medieval systems that evolved from the remnants of the Roman empire were reinfused with knowledge and culture from the Islamic and Asian civilizations and grew into competing nation states. A combination of the demands of internal growth and warfare between nations almost exhausted the carrying capacity of Europe. As this ecological crisis deepened in the 14th and 15th centuries, European exploration in search of new resources carried the “diseases of crowding” around the world. In the Americas up to 90 percent of many populations died, leaving vast resources to plunder. Starting with the repatriation of precious metals and seeds of valuable crop plants such as corn and potatoes, European nations soon moved on to building empires powered by slavery that allowed them to exploit and colonize the new lands well stocked with timber, animals and fertile soils, all rejuvenating in the wake of the collapse of indigenous populations.
As industrialization spread oil quickly surpassed coal as the most valuable energy source, and accelerated the jump in human population. European population, culture (especially capitalism) and technology grew strong enough to then tap vast stocks of novel energy that were useless to previous simpler societies. European coal fuelled the Industrial Revolution while food and other basic commodities from colonies helped solve the limits to food production in Europe. As industrialization spread in North America and later in Russia, oil quickly surpassed coal as the most valuable energy source, and accelerated the jump in human population from 1 billion in 1800 to 2 billion in 1930 and now over 6 billion in one lifetime. This massive growth in human carrying capacity has been made possible by the consumption of vast stocks of non-renewable resources (in addition to expanding demand on the renewable biological resources of the planet). Rapid rates of urbanization and migration, technology change, increasing affluence and disparity of wealth as well as unprecedented conflicts between global and regional powers have accompanied this transition. The history of the 20th century makes more sense when interpreted primarily as the struggle for control of oil rather than the clash of ideologies.1 In emphasizing the primacy of energy resources I am not saying that the great struggles between ideologies have not been important in shaping history, especially Capitalism and Socialism. But most teaching and understanding of history under-estimates the importance of energetic, ecological and economic factors.
The fact that conflict has increased as available resources have expanded is hard to explain using conventional thinking. One way to understand this is using older moral concepts about more power leading to greater moral degradation. Another equally useful way to understand this is using ecological thinking. When resources are minimal and very diffuse, energy spent by one human group, tribe or nation to capture those resources can be greater than what is gained. As resources become more concentrated (by grain agriculture and more dramatically by tapping fossil fuels), the resources captured through diplomacy, trade and even war are often much greater than the effort expended.
The final phase in the fossil fuel saga is playing out now as the transition from oil to natural gas and lower quality oil resources accelerates, with massive new infrastructure developments around the world as well as increasing tension and active conflicts over resources. We can only hope that nations and humanity as a whole learns quickly that using resources to capture resources will yield less return and incur escalating costs and risks in a world of depleting and diffuse energy.
B. The Next Energy Transition
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Quite early in the exploitation of fossil resources the debate began about what happens after their exhaustion, but it has remained mostly academic. The post WWII period of sustained growth, affluence and freedom from the adverse effects of war had the effect of entrenching the faith in human power and the inexorable arrow of progress that would lead to more of whatever we desired. Consideration of external limits or cultural constraints on individualistic affluence remained at the fringe. Throughout most of the 20th century, a range of energy sources (from nuclear to solar) have been proposed as providing the next “free” energy source that will replace fossil fuels.
In so called developing countries, the power of the dominant globalist culture both as a model to emulate and a mode of exploitation to resist, preoccupied most thinkers, leaders and activists. The key issue was how to get a share of the cake, not the limits to the size of the cake.
But the super accelerated growth in energy per person of the post WWII era came to an end with the energy crisis of 1973, when OPEC countries moved to exert their power through oil supply and price. The publication of the seminal Limits To Growth report in 1972 had defined the problem and the consequences by modeling how a range of limits would constrain industrial society in the early 21st century. After the second oil shock in 1979 the debate about the next energy transition intensified, but by 1983 a series of factors pushed energy supply off the agenda. Economic contraction not seen since the Depression of the 1930’s had reduced demand and consequently prices for energy and natural resources. In affluent countries conversion from oil to gas and nuclear for electricity generation reduced demand for oil. Energy efficiency gains in vehicles and industry further reduced demand. Most importantly, the new super giant oil fields in the North Sea and Alaska reduced Western dependence on OPEC and depressed the price of oil. All other primary commodity prices followed the downward trend set by oil because cheap energy could be used to substitute for other needed commodities.
The economies of the affluent countries were further boosted by two important changes. The shift from Keynesian to Friedmanite free market economic policies reduced regulatory impediments to business and enlisted public wealth for new private profits. At the same time, the Third World debt crisis in developing countries triggered by collapsing commodity prices didn’t slow the flow of interest repayments into the coffers of western banks. In line with the new free market ideology, Structural Adjustment Packages from the IMF and World Bank provided more loans (and debt) on the condition that developing countries slash education, health and other public services, to conserve funds for repayments.
The scientific consensus about Global Warming in the late 80’s and early 90’s renewed the focus on reducing fossil fuel use. Not to conserve resources, which were widely thought to be abundant, but to reduce carbon dioxide additions to the atmosphere. But with energy prices low due to a glut of oil, the main action was an acceleration in the shift to gas as a cheap and relatively “clean” fuel.
Half a century earlier in 1956, the startling predictions by eminent petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert that oil production in the USA, the world’s largest producer, would peak in 1970, had almost destroyed Hubbert’s career and reputation. Ironically the controversy within the oil industry over Hubbert’s methodology and predictions was not known the authors of the Limits To Growth Report and was not part of the 1970’s public debate over limits of resources. It was nearly a decade, at the depth of the greatest economic recession since the 1930’s, before the industry would acknowledge that the 48 lower states of the US had in fact peaked and declined despite the greatest drilling program in history. Hubbert has also made a more approximate estimate of a global peak early in the 21st century.
In the mid 1990’s the work of independent and retire petroleum geologists who were colleagues of Hubbert reviewed his original predictions using new information and evidence, triggering the debate about peak oil that grew and spread along with the internet in the last years of the millennium. But with the cost of oil as low as $10/barrel, the gurus of economics and oil supply quoted in the mainstream media thought that oil was on the way to becoming worthless and redundant through glut and technological advances. The delusions of cheap energy were widespread. Ironically, many environmentalists concerned about the mounting evidence of, and inaction of governments about climate change, put their faith in the “hydrogen economy” powered by clean renewable technologies to save us from polluting the planet to death.
[Image at right: Freeway in Raileigh, North Carolina at peak hour, 2005. The classic symbol of automobile dependence in the USA where personal mobility in private automotives consumes about 60% of total oil production and imports.]
While energy and consequently food costs in affluent countries remained the lowest in human history, the evidence for energy descent rather than ascent made little impact, outside the counterculture. Since 2004 the rising cost of energy, and now food, is focusing the attention of leaders and the masses to the questions of sustainability not seen since the energy crises of the 1970’s.
The research, activism and awareness of energy and climate issues provide a context for the growing debate about the ecological, economic and social sustainability of everything from agriculture to human settlement patterns and even fundamental human values and beliefs. There is a huge body of evidence that the next energy transition will not follow the pattern of recent centuries to more concentrated and powerful sources.
But the likelihood that this transition will be to one of less energy is such an anathema to the psycho-social foundations and power elites of modern societies that it is constantly misinterpreted, ignored, covered up or derided. Instead we see geopolitical maneuvering around energy resources, including proxy and real wars to control dwindling reserves and policy gymnastics to somehow make reducing carbon emissions, the new engine of economic growth.
C. Energy Futures
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There is still much debate about the basic nature of the current energy transition, driven most notably by climate change and peak oil. Most of that debate focuses on the immediate future of the next few decades, though I think it is essential to first see these changes on a larger temporal scale of centuries if not millennia. I have set the scene by characterizing the debate about the future as primarily one about whether energy available to human systems will rise or fall. These are outlined in the next section, Four Energy Futures.
D. Four Energy Futures
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Four broad energy scenarios provide a framework for considering the wide spectrum of culturally imagined, and ecologically likely, futures over the next century or more.
I’ve labeled these:
[Chart above: The Four Energy Futures]
Techno-explosion depends on new, large and concentrated energy sources that will allow the continual growth in material wealth and human power over environmental constraints, as well as population growth. This scenario is generally associated with space travel to colonize other planets.
Techno-stability depends on a seamless conversion from material growth based on depleting energy, to a steady state in consumption of resources and population (if not economic activity), all based on novel use of renewable energies and technologies that can maintain if not improve the quality of services available from current systems. While this clearly involves massive change in almost all aspects of society, the implication is that once sustainable systems are set in place, a steady state sustainable society with much less change will prevail. Photovoltaic technology directly capturing solar energy is a suitable icon or symbol of this scenario.
Energy Descent involves a reduction of economic activity, complexity and population in some way as fossil fuels are depleted. The increasing reliance on renewable resources of lower energy density will, over time, change the structure of society to reflect many of the basic design rules, if not details, of pre-industrial societies. This suggests a ruralization of settlement and economy, with less consumption of energy and resources and a progressive decline in human populations. Biological resources and their sustainable management will become progressively more important as fossil fuels and technological power declines. In many regions, forests will regain their traditional status as symbols of wealth. Thus the tree is a suitable icon of this scenario. Energy Descent (like Techno-explosion) is a scenario dominated by change, but that change might not be continuous or gradual. Instead it could be characterized by a series of steady states punctuated by crises (or mini collapses) that destroy some aspects of Industrial culture.
Collapse suggests a failure of the whole range of interlocked systems that maintain and support industrial society, as high quality fossil fuels are depleted and/or climate change radically damages the ecological support systems. This collapse would be fast and more or less continuous without the destabilizations possible in Energy Descent. It would inevitably involve a major “die-off” of human population and a loss of the knowledge and infrastructure necessary for industrial civilization, if not more severe scenarios including human extinction along with much of the planet’s biodiversity.
E. Views of the Future
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The views of academics and commentators about the future are colored by their beliefs about the degree to which human systems are the product of our innate “brilliance” that is independent from nature’s constraints, or alternatively, beholden to biophysical deterministic forces. Those with plans and actions to shape the future (especially current power elites) tend to focus on scenarios where they see options for effective influence.
Over the last 60 years we have seen substantial achievements as well as many dreams and promises towards the Techno Explosion future that might free us from the constraints of energetic laws or at least those of a finite planet. This belief in perpetual growth has survived the scorn of mathematicians explaining how constant exponential growth even at low rates leads to explosion, literally. This belief in perpetual growth has survived the scorn of mathematicians explaining how constant exponential growth even at low rates leads to explosion, literally. The term “negative growth” used by economists to describe economic contraction shows that anything other than growth is unthinkable. The dream of infinite growth from free energy and colonizing space have not been realised7despite the novel and substantial contributions of computers and information technology towards this goal.
The unstated assumptions of “business as usual”
At a more pragmatic and immediate scale, the reasons for the faith in future growth are rarely articulated but can be summarized by a few common assumptions that seem to lie behind most public documents and discussion of the future. These do not represent specific or even recognized views of particular academics, corporate leaders or politicians but more society wide assumptions that are generally left unstated.
• Global extraction rates of important non-renewable commodities will continue to rise.
• There will be no peaks and declines other than through high energy substitution such as the historical transitions from wood to coal and from coal to oil.
• Economic activity, globalization and increases in technological complexity will continue to grow.
• The geopolitical order that established the USA as the dominant superpower may evolve and change but will not be subject to any precipitous collapse such as happened to the Soviet Union.
• Climate change will be marginal or slow in its impacts on human systems, such that adaption will not necessitate changes in the basic organization of society.
• Household and community economies and social capacity will continue to shrink in both their scope and importance to society.
Being more transparent about our assumptions becomes essential in times of turbulent change and historical transition. All of these assumptions are based on projections of past trends extending back over a human lifetime and drawing more broadly on patterns that can be traced to the origins of industrial civilization and capitalism in Europe hundreds of years ago. Simply exposing these assumptions makes it clear how weak the foundations are for any planned response to the issue of energy transitions. Being more transparent about our assumptions becomes essential in times of turbulent change and historical transition if our aim is to empower personal and community action.
Mainstream approaches to sustainability assume that the Techno Stability long term future is inevitable. Since the environmental awareness and energy crises of the 1970s, we have had a parallel stream of thinking and modest achievements towards the Techno Stability future that, in theory, is compatible with the limits of a finite planet. The principles and strategies of mainstream approaches to sustainability assume that the Techno Stability long term future is inevitable in some form, even if we go through some crises along the way. The focus is on how to make that transition from growth based on fossil energies to a steady state based on largely novel renewable sources.
The tricky issue of dependence of the financial systems on continuous economic growth has been largely ignored or side-stepped by the assumption that the economy maybe able to keep growing without using more and more materials and energy. The explosion of economic activity based on financial services and information technology in the dominant economies during the early 90’s gave some credibility to this concept of the “weightless economy”, although it is now clear that globalization simply shifted the consumption of resources to other countries to support this growth in the service economies.
F. Human capital
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Much faith in both growth and steady state scenarios rests on the observation that human ingenuity, technology, markets and social capital are at least as important in shaping history as raw energy and resources. The stunning power and spread of computers and information technology into all sectors of industrial society is seen as much a product of human capital as it is of natural capital. The rise of the service economy promised continued economic growth without using more energy and materials. But these service economies and the human capital that helped create them were themselves created through the flows of energy and resources. For example, mass education, and especially mass tertiary education, is a very expensive investment in technical capacity and social capital that has been possible because of economic wealth from the extraction of cheap fossil energy and non-renewable resources.
Mass education has been possible because of the extraction of cheap fossil energy.
In pre-industrial societies it was not possible to have so many potential workers outside the productive economies of agriculture and manufacturing, or to build the educational infrastructure necessary for mass education. Human capital, in the form of mass education, the media, democracy and other characteristics of industrial culture has greatly expanded the apparent power of human rather than ecological factors in determining our future. While these new forms of wealth are clearly important, they are in reality “stores” of high quality embodied fossil energy. Like more material forms of wealth, they depreciate over time and must be used and renewed to remain useful.
Much of the technological and economic innovation since the oil shocks of the 1970’s can be attributed to society’s capacity to draw on this human capital and, by further cycles of reinvestment, further build human capital. Several factors suggest the continuous growth in human capital and capacity is an illusion.
_1. Firstly, much of this growth is in forms that are increasingly dysfunctional. For example the increasingly sedentary lifestyle created by the computer and other innovation is requiring escalating expenditure in the health care system and in the health and fitness industry to compensate for lifestyles that are incompatible with human biology.
_2. Secondly, much of the economic growth since the energy crises of the 1970’s has come through economical rationalist policies such as privatization. Many academics and social commentators have identified how much of the apparent economic growth has come at the cost of decline in many social indicators of well-being. We can think of this growth as being driven as much from mining (rather than maintaining) social capital as it has from mining the earth. For example, the privatization of many electricity and other utilities has resulted in the loss of detailed knowledge about the maintenance of infrastructure, while maintenance budgets have been cut to the bone. Gains in productivity and efficiency have been achieved at the cost of resilience and long term capacity.
One of the characteristics of a robust, enduring and mature civilization is the capacity to consider the longer term, aim for desirable but achievable futures, but have fall-back strategies and insurance policies to deal with surprise and uncertainty. Given the globalised nature of culture, knowledge and wealth, our industrial civilization should have been able to devote resources to serious redesign strategies at the technological, infrastructural, organizational, cultural and personal levels which are able to respond to the potentials of all four long term scenarios. Instead we see remarkably short term behavior and a cavalier disregard of the fate of future generations. While this is often explained as “human nature” of fallible individuals, this explanation should not apply to institutions such as corporations let alone governments. History and systems theory suggest that powerful and long lived human institutions should embody longer term cultural wisdom and capacity.
We can interpret the short sighted nature of information and decision making in our largest organizational structures as one of the many signs of cultural decay, reflecting the fact that our stocks of human capital may be declining just as our stock of natural capital is. Applying the concept of resource depletion to that of social capital in both affluent and poor countries over the last 40 years is more than metaphorical. This depletion suggests these less material forms of wealth may be subject to the same laws of energy and entropy that govern the natural capital of the earth, air and water.
Consequently, we should be skeptical of the notion that innovation in technology and organization is a continuously expanding human resource that we can rely on to solve ever more complex challenges. This is not to say that given the right conditions humanity cannot rise to the energy transition challenge we face. However the conditions that could harness that human capacity are unlikely to include the continuation of endless economic growth, maintenance of current world power structures and the idolizing of consumption. A smooth conversion to a steady state economy running on renewable energy without massive geopolitical and economic crises is unlikely. In fact an increasing number of commentators recognize that we are already in the crisis that has been unfolding since the turn of the millennium.
For a minority of intellectuals and ordinary citizens, unimpressed by the likelihood of Techno Explosion or Techno Stability, the logical future seems to be some kind crisis leading to implosion and the collapse of civilization. The old adage “what goes up must come down” still has some truth but several factors lead to people jumping to the conclusion that the Collapse scenario is inevitable without thinking about the possibilities of Descent.
Several factors lead to people jumping to the conclusion that the Collapse scenario is inevitable without thinking about the possibilities of Descent. Firstly there is a long tradition of millennialism in Judeo-Christian culture which periodically leads to predictions of the “end of the world as we know it” based on the idea that our current world is fundamentally flawed in some way. The simplicity and mostly incorrect nature of these past predictions suggest caution when considering current predictions of doom. The fable of the “boy who cried wolf” is sometimes cited to suggest current concerns are also false alarms. But this history also has the effect of inoculating society against considering the evidence. Exposure to a small dose of millennialism leads to resistance to the effects of larger doses. Ironically, the point of the fable is that the threat of the wolf is real but that no one takes any notice because of past false alarms.
Ironically the point of the “boy who cried wolf” fable is that the threat of the wolf is real but that no one takes any notice because of past false alarms. Another factor reinforcing this tendency of some to believe in Collapse is the rapid rate of recent cultural change and the very short term perspective of modern people despite the huge increase in knowledge about the distant past. Life in cities and suburbs, surrounded by technology and sustained by reliable income and debt is “normal” for many people in affluent counties, even though these features only emerged in the latter half of the 20th century. If future change were to sweep away this way of life, many people would see this as “the end of civilization” even if these changes were quite modest from an historical perspective. For example, a return to the conditions of the Great Depression is clearly not “the end of civilization” but the idea that any downturn from the current peak of affluence represents “the end of civilization”, is quite widely assumed. Perhaps this reflects the egocentric nature of modern mentality where we consider our own survival and well being as being more important than was perhaps felt by past generations. It may also be interpreted as an intuitive recognition that this peak of affluence, like peak oil, is a fundamental turning point that will break the illusion of the, more or less, continuous arrow of growth and progress into the distant future.
There is substantial evidence that current, let alone projected human populations cannot be sustained without fossil fuels. The concept of overshoot in animal carrying capacity has been used by population ecologists to model past and potential future collapses in human populations.There is substantial evidence that current, let alone projected human populations cannot be sustained without fossil fuels. Historical evidence from the Black Death and other pandemics show that societies can survive significant die-off in human numbers even if they do go through great setbacks and changes as a result. Because human systems are now global in scope and integration, the more limited regional collapse of economies and civilizations in the past is not necessarily a model of the scale, intensity and likely recovery from any global collapse. Also these societies were less complex with less specialisation of critical functions. It is possible that loss of critical numbers of engineers, technologists, medical specialists or even large scale farmers in a pandemic could cause modern industrial society to collapse very rapidly.
…but the best documented historical case, that of the Roman empire, suggests a more gradual and less complete decline process. The consideration of collapse has been strongly influenced by some ecological historians such as Catton, Diamond and Tainter. While Catton emphasizes the concept of overshoot leading to severe collapse, Diamond emphasizes the aspect of societal myopia leading to unnecessary collapse. Tainter provides a systemic view of how failure of energy capture strategies leads to decline in complexity that can play out over centuries. In turn, the conditions for ordinary people may actually improve when the resources devoted maintaining societal complexity are freed for meeting more basic needs. While all these perspectives and understanding are useful, I think the all-encompassing use of the term collapse is too broad a definition and inconsistent with our normal understanding of the term as a rapid and complete process. Historical examples of relatively complete and/or sudden civilizational collapse from the Minoans in the eastern Mediterranean to Mayans in Mexico are potential models for what could happen to global industrial civilization. The best documented historical case, that of the Roman empire and Greco-Roman civilization more broadly, suggests a more gradual and less complete decline process.
I don’t want to underplay the possibility of a total and relatively fast global collapse of complex societies that we recognize as civilization. I think this is a substantial risk but the total collapse scenario tends to lead to fatalistic acceptance or alternatively, naïve notions of individual or family survivalist preparations. Similarly, the Collapse scenario is so shocking that it reinforces the rejection by the majority of even thinking about the future, thus increasing the likelihood of very severe energy descent, if not total collapse. Perhaps a majority of people think civilizational collapse is inevitable but think or hope that it won’t happen in their lifetime. A more realistic assessment of the possibilities and adaptive responses to the Collapse long term scenario is only possible after a deep and nuanced understanding of the diverse possibilities and likelihoods of the Energy Descent long term scenario.
Continued in (Survival Manual/2. Social Issues/Our Future, Part 2 of 4)